Despite injuries, Blue Jackets staying strong in net
When 2012-13 Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky went down in the third period on Dec. 3 after making an outstanding glove save against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Columbus Blue Jackets team, organization and fans collectively held their breath.
As Bobrovsky was escorted off the ice and made his way down the tunnel to tend to what would be revealed as a groin strain, Curtis McElhinney pulled on his helmet and made eight big saves, preserving the shutout and securing two points in the standings.
When Bobrovsky was placed on injured reserve the following day, it became known that the team would be without him for four to five weeks. However, GM Jarmo Kekalainen was "confident" in McElhinney as the starter and Mike McKenna was recalled from the Springfield Falcons.
So how have the Blue Jackets fared thus far without Bobrovsky? Let's take a closer look.
The Blue Jackets came into their first game without Bobrovsky on Dec. 6 with an 11-14-3 record and just 25 points in the standings. The first team they'd face without their No. 1 goaltender was the Minnesota Wild, a team with six more wins and 14 points ahead of the Blue Jackets in the league standings. If there was ever a team to test the Jackets' strength and will, this was it. McElhinney was the starter and stopped all 20 shots he faced, earning himself a shutout. That was not just a single-player effort, though, as the team threw 41 shots at Nicklas Backstrom, who allowed four goals. The win showed Blue Jackets nation that this team could in fact stand without Bobrovsky.
Before Dec. 6, McElhinney had seen action in just eight games, including only five starts. Though his 1-3-1 win-loss record said otherwise, his 0.925 save percentage was nothing to scoff at. The Blue Jackets also had a reliable backup for McElhinney in McKenna, who had been named the AHL goaltender of the month just days prior to his recall, posting a 4-1-0 record, a 1.16 goals-against average, a .950 save percentage and two shutouts for the month of November with the Springfield Falcons.
Flash forward to today, Dec. 27. McElhinney has a 0.920 save percentage and a 5-5-1 record--a save percentage that is currently 14th-best in the NHL. The two goaltenders have stopped a combined 263 of 289 shots faced, good enough for a combined 0.910 save percentage. Together, they have posted a 5-3-1 record in the nine games Bobrovsky has missed. Those three losses were games where one goal was the only difference.
Not just goaltenders
Several other players have stepped up to help McElhinney and McKenna by producing more offense. The top line of Foligno-Johansen-Umberger has combined for 23 points in those ten games, including ten for Ryan Johansen (5G-5A), who has averaged a point-per-game pace since Dec. 3. Brandon Dubinsky has also posted eight points (1G-7A) in that span. In those nine games, the Blue Jackets also have a +7 goal differential, outscoring opponents 33-26.
Defensemen have stepped up in front of the crease as well. Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray have led the team in blocked shots, preventing a combined 26 pucks from getting through to McElhinney and McKenna. Shots blocked by players in front of the net mean less work for goaltenders, also resulting in a reduction in solid offensive chances produced by opposing teams.
Something to watch for
McKenna came in to relieve McElhinney on Dec. 12 against the New York Rangers after suffering an injury in the first period, securing the win. He then went on to start the next two games (12/14 against the Blues, a 4-3 OT loss and 12/16 against the Jets, a 3-2 regulation loss) and Jeremy Smith was recalled from the Falcons to serve as McKenna's backup. Despite impressing Blue Jackets staff during training camp and posting solid numbers in Springfield, Smith was sent back down a few days later and did not see any NHL ice time during his recall.
McKenna also started the Dec. 23 game in Carolina, a 4-3 divisional victory over the Hurricanes, after McElhinney re-aggravated his injury. With his first regulation and starting win under his belt, McKenna said post-victory that he felt more confident and was glad to have the first win secured.
Bobrovsky has now been sidelined for about three weeks and is on track in his recovery, meaning he could be ready for action as early as the second week of January. However, if the McElhinney and McKenna stay hot for the Blue Jackets, the coaching staff could have a few decisions to make when everyone is healthy--a great problem for a team to have.